(Also known as “Help with Poisoning Cows – Part Two”)

Novelists use a weird combination of imagination and reality when writing a book. Generally, if the novel doesn’t follow real-world logic, the reader finds it unbelievable and, possibly, unreadable. I’m in awe of the research that goes into many novels. Tom Clancy was a master at research and Stephen King did more than his fair share in his book 11/22/63 . A section of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks takes place during the Iraq War — when reading it, you feel as if you’re there.

In a Goodreads interview, Mr. Mitchell said this about research:

“To get it right, you need to research and research and research. And then you need to hide all your research, otherwise something else happens. You get sentences like, ‘Milord, would you like me to light the sperm whale oil lantern or would you prefer the cheaper but smokier pig tallow candle?’ You burst into laughter and—puff!—the illusion is gone. So you have to get it right, then you have to hide it.”

For my current series, The Devil Particle Trilogy, I imagine evil as a known substance. There’s no such thing of course, but in order to give the book believability, I needed a pseudo-scientific evil substance so I decided to find a particle physicist to help me. Would you believe there’s a particle physics and accelerator laboratory in Batavia, Illinois? Fermilab on a smaller scale. At Fermilab, they offer an Ask-a-Scientist free lecture and tour on the first Sunday of every month — perfect. So my older daughter and I took a road trip to Batavia.

After the lecture, a woman in the audience asked what her son should study to become physicist. The lecturer urged him to study math. In the audience, another physicist added: “He should also study whatever he’s interested in, be it music, art, science, or all those things.” If you’ve read Carpe Diem, Illinois, you know that’s exactly my educational philosophy. I’d found my scientist!

I approached this scientist, Dr. Michael Albrow, and asked him what possible substance evil could be. At first he had a hard time taking me seriously, but when we discussed Fermilab’s previous director, Leon Lederman, and the shame of Congress nixing the world’s largest superconducting supercollider in Texas, he realized I’d done some research. We talked for half an hour and then exchanged contact information. Over the next few weeks we decided that the scientific name of a devil particle is an agoniston. Mike and I have met several times since and plan on collaborating on his idea for sci-fi thriller.

As you can see, there are times when online or library research isn’t enough.

For instance, while writing the second book in The Devil Particle Trilogy I realized that Gaige Devlin, the protagonist, would have to know survival skills. I checked five books on survival out of the library but, while looking through them, I realized I was in over my head. And then one of those weird serendipitous things happened. Travel Leisure Magazine came in the mail (though I don’t have a subscription) and included an advertisement for Explorer Chicks — adventure trips for women. One adventure they offered was a four-day survival trip in the Virginia mountains. And would you believe that my book takes place there? So, guess where I’ll be this April?

Explorer Chick ad pic

Where will future research take me? I’m not sure, but I think it should definitely include a trip to Norcia, Italy, where Leo’s mother was born. Care to join me?

Norcia, Italy

(photo by Stephen G. Graham)

When I’m not visiting physics labs or hiking in the mountains of Virginia, you can find me:

In Print Writers as Readers Book Club, Tuesday, February 6th, 6:30 p.m. Barnes & Noble, CherryVale Mall, Rockford. We’re discussing George Saunders’ first novel Lincoln in the Bardo.

In Print with Libby Fischer Hellmann, Saturday, February 10th, 1-4 p.m., Katie’s Cup, 502 7th Street, Rockford, IL. Critique groups kick-off featuring the most effective critiquing practices and the best ways to start a group.

Let’s Just Write! An Uncommon Writers Conference, Saturday, March 10th – Sunday, March 11th, Whitehall Hotel, 105 East Delaware Place, Chicago (one block from Michigan Avenue). I’ll be volunteering for the Chicago Writers Association’s first writers conference.

UW-Madison Writers’ Institute Pathway to Publication, April 12-15. I’ll be busy helping writers practice their pitches to agents, running the Book Fair, and, together with Book Doctor Kevin Mullen, hosting the Live Lit Event.

Explorer Chicks Virginia Hiking & Survival 101, April 19-22, Catawba, Virginia.

And writers, did you know?

I teach an online writing course through UW-Madison called:The Edge of Your Seat: A Cliffhanger How-To. It’s pack-full of great information and writing exercises to bring your writing to the next level. Be sure to check it out!

Thank you for reading!

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